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This article continues an on-going, verse-by-verse series on the exhortations in Romans 12.
19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." (Romans 12:19-20).
Paul here continues his exhortations for us as we live as Christians in a fallen world. This verse ends a section that speaks on living at peace with those around us. Paul strengthens his point by encouraging us to live at peace even with those who treat us horribly and deserve our revenge. He says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath."
Paul is speaking seriously, and with love, exhorting us to behavior that is difficult to carry out, so he sincerely addresses his exhortation "my friends". It is hard for us to believe that this exhortation would be necessary, if we have followed the previous ones in this chapter. If we have blessed those who persecute us (v. 14), and strived to live in harmony with others (v. 16), have not been proud or conceited (v. 16), have been careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone (v. 17), strived to be at peace with everyone (v. 18), it is hard to believe that we would be treated in a way that revenge would be necessary. But such is this world. Even if we follow Paul's previous exhortations, we will still be treated maliciously.
At such times, we are not to take revenge ourselves, but rather, "leave room for God's wrath." In other words, we are to get out of the way and let God do his part. It is God's job to judge; private revenge is absolutely prohibited to the Christian. We naturally desire to take revenge, but we are commanded by God not to. We must have the faith to believe that God is just, and God will "repay". It is easier to refrain from vengeance when we know by faith that we have someone to take up our cause. Here on earth, when a criminal is arrested by the police, we do not feel that we personally must take action, because we know that (most likely) justice will be administered (given a justice system that does its job). How much more should we feel satisfied, being citizens of God's kingdom, knowing that God is just, that "God will repay". The police force in the kingdom of God always gets their man, and the Supreme Judge and Lawgiver is righteous, administering justice perfectly. Why would we even consider revenge, knowing that God is just? To consider revenge is to deny God's righteousness.
Leaving room for God's wrath goes beyond the actions and includes the thoughts, as well. We are not only to refrain from revenge, but also remove all thoughts of revenge. We are to steer clear of unholy thoughts of (so called) righteous indignation. Righteous indignation and the failure to keep this command has led to many an evil in the name of Christianity: the Inquisition, abortion clinic killings, the horrors of the Crusades, etc. What should our attitude be? Christ is our example in this: "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23). Instead of righteous indignation, we should say, as Christ did, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34). Such an attitude has the positive side-effect of giving us peace. No one has more anxiety than the man who desires revenge. But if we "leave room for God's wrath" and know that "God will repay", we can be at peace.
The proof that we have followed this exhortation of Paul's, and are "leaving room for God's wrath", can be seen in our behavior towards our enemy. Rather than revenge: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink." Such behavior demonstrates that we are at peace with leaving the retaliation up to God. This behavior, unfortunately, is largely missing from our lives as Christians; nevertheless, love for one's enemies is, in essence, Christianity in action. Christ said unequivocally: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44).
In feeding our enemy and giving him drink when he is thirsty, we "heap burning coals on his head." Showing love for our enemy is the most effective way to subdue him. The "burning coals" of love will do more in changing his behavior than the sword of revenge. Your "burning coals" of love will melt his heart, bringing remorse and shame for his evil, much more effectively than the fire of your wrath.
Christ, again, is our example in this. We all are His enemies, "for all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), but rather than hurling down the fire of wrath, Christ rains upon us His "burning coals" of love, feeding us when we are hungry, giving us drink when we thirst. As mentioned, "when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate", rather He said, "Father, forgive them"; "when he suffered, he made no threats", rather He gave His life for us. Who can withstand such "burning coals"? Who can ignore such love? If we show contempt for the grace of God and the love of Christ, our condemnation certainly is deserved, and the greatest punishment just. "How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" (Heb. 2:3).
So, Lord, help us, by Your Spirit, to have the same attitude as Christ toward those who do evil to us. May we show love to them and, in doing so, "heap burning coals" upon their heads so that they may turn to You in repentance. Thank You for the fact that You will avenge the wrongs done to us and that we do not have to worry about doing so. Give us peace in this fact. In the name of Christ, we pray these things, Amen.
(In the next issue, we will conclude our study in Romans 12)
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